How the Bones of St. Peter were Recovered
Tradition has always located the tomb of St. Peter directly under the high altar of St. Peter’s church in Rome. In February 1939, Pope Pius XI died. Workmen digging for this pope’s tomb in the Vatican grottos under St. Peter’s church came upon an ancient Roman necropolis (graveyard) of great archaeological interest. In 1940, on the advice of his adviser on German affairs, one Msgr. Kaas, Pope Pius XII gave permission for a systematic archaeological search for St. Peter’s grave. He set the condition that the whole work should be completed by 1950. The Pope was hoping to announce during the Holy Year of 1950 that St. Peter’s bones had been found and definitely identified. 2
An officially authorised team of four archaeologists set to work and in the first months of 1942 arrived at the area directly below the high altar of St. Peter’s. By this time they had excavated their way down a whole short ‘street’ of mostly pagan mausoleums. They had now arrived at an enclosed whitetiled courtyard dominated by a 26 foot long red wall in the midst of which had stood a marble shrine. This marble shrine stood directly below the high altar of St. Peter’s. It was soon identified as the tropaion or ‘trophy’ referred to by a Roman priest named Gaius in the late second century and quoted by Eusebius in his Church History (324 AD): “But I myself can point out the trophies of the Apostles. For if you wish to go out to the Vatican field or down the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who founded this church.” (Historia Ecclesiae, II: 25, 7) Directly beneath this marble shrine was found a partially destroyed grave site lying at an odd angle from the Red Wall. Pains had been taken to preserve as much as possible of this grave. This grave moreover lay directly under not only the marble ‘trophy’ but also under the high altars built in the 7 th century, the 11th century and the present one built in the 16 th century. 3
This obviously had been St. Peter’s grave. When a bone was found encrusted in its soul, it was gingerly replaced, and the Pope was immediately notified. Within ten minutes Pope Pius XII arrived. After discussion with the four archaeologists of the digging team, he gave the ‘go ahead’ for the removal of all the bones from this central grave and their transferral to the lead-lined boxes specially prepared for them. The Pope sat on a chair on some marble pavement just above the pit and watched prayerfully over the next several hours as each bone was prised loose from the soil and reverently deposited in the boxes at his feet. But something was wrong. There were too many bones. The grave had certainly been that of St. Peter, but among those bones found had any actually belonged to the Prince of the Apostles? In the Holy Year of 1950 no announcement could be made that the true bones of St. Peter himself had actually been identified. Only in the spring of 1956 did the Pope finally direct that the bones be thoroughly re-examined by the best possible specialist available: Professor Venerando Correnti, archaeological anthropologist at Palermo University. Correnti found that the
Published on Nov 29, 2011
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